Why the pinstripes are fading to black

Dec. 15, 2005, midnight | By Jonah Gold | 14 years, 9 months ago

In the modern era of free agents and egotistical athletes, the sports dynasty is in decline

They grace soup cans and cereal boxes. They sponsor shoes, cars, bubble-gum and even grills that "knock out the fat." They can be heroes or villains, saviors or spoilers. They can make — or break — the dreams of thousands. They are the Joe Montanas, the Wayne Gretzkys and the David Beckhams: players who created some of the last great dynasties in professional sports.

These athletes are some of the greatest to play professional sports, and their teams are despised to this day. Still, these dynasties are some of the last we may ever see. Traditional top-tier teams are falling, new teams are moving up and the empires of old are beginning to crumble. The New York Yankees, Los Angeles Lakers and Philadelphia Eagles have shown that all good things must end. Free agency, malcontent players, premature injury and aging have all played roles in ensuring that, while everyone will continue to hate the Yankees, they may have less and less reason to do so.

Money doesn't buy happiness... or championships

The Yankees had some of their best teams from 1996 to 2000. In fact, "Baseball Dynasties: The Greatest Teams of All Time" by Rob Neyer and Eddie Epstein ranked the 1998 Yankee team in the 99.9998th percentile. So who brought down a team that was so phenomenal? The same man who built it up: principal owner George Steinbrenner.

New York was actually quite frugal during the late 90s, spending $60 to $70 million a year. But as wins started dwindling, Steinbrenner became more involved in the team's signings. Starting in 2002, Steinbrenner began coercing General Manager Brian Cashman to sign aging, untested or continually injured "stars" to large contracts, often with disastrous results. In starting pitching alone, the Yankees signed Jeff Weaver, Jose Contreras, Jared Wright, Carl Pavano, Jon Lieber, Kevin Brown, Al Leiter and Randy Johnson. Every single one of these pitchers failed to live up to expectations and cost the franchise millions of dollars. Last season, Wright, Pavano and Brown had a combined record of 13-18 and an average ERA of 5.78 while costing the team an astounding $30.4 million, only $7 million less than the entire payroll of the Tampa Bay Devil Rays.

Where's the fourpeat?

After winning their third straight championship in 2002, it seemed that nothing could go wrong for the Los Angeles Lakers. The team had the two best players in the league in Kobe Bryant and Shaquille O'Neal, who together averaged over 52 points per game. In 2003, the Lakers added Karl Malone and Gary Payton and seemed destined for a "fourpeat." When the team fell to the Detroit Pistons in the finals, the loss set off a chain of events that changed the face of the NBA. Bickering between O'Neal and Bryant began. Bryant wanted the Lakers to be his team and, using his leverage, got O'Neal traded.

O'Neal went to the Miami Heat and made them an instant contender. Bryant received Miami's scraps: forwards Lamar Odom, Caron Butler and Brian Grant. Without a true frontcourt, the Lakers fell apart, finishing with a dismal 34-48 record and missing the playoffs.

Today's Lakers aren't even the best team in LA. Even the Clippers topped the Lakers 97-91 last month and now stand at 11-5, compared to the Lakers' 7-9. Kobe thought that he was good enough to decide the team's future and has already been proved wrong. In a world with super-star players, the best often overstep their boundaries to disastrous effect.

T.O. takes a T.O.

No one knows this better than the Philadelphia Eagles, a team that ran through the NFC East for years until this season. Between 2000 and 2003, the Eagles won 46 games, more than any other team in the NFL. The New England Patriots, with all of their success, won seven fewer.
Enter Terrell Owens.

Easily one of the game's most talented players, Owens piled up super-star stats — and complaints — while in San Francisco. The Eagles, desperate to win a championship, added Owens, believing that he was the missing piece of the puzzle. The Eagles kept winning during his first season, going 13-3, but once they lost the Super Bowl, things went sour.

Owens began to publicly criticize McNabb for his play during the Super Bowl. At the start of the season, Owens continued to attack the team and its coaching staff. Owens was promptly suspended, initially for just a few games, and then for the entire season. The Eagles without Owens fell apart offensively and are now mired in a 1-5 streak. The Eagles don't need to rebuild just yet, but from now on, they must sign players who will contribute to the team both on and off the field.

The up-and-comers

The professional sports dynasty is no more. Established, winning teams have fallen, and the core reasons — star-searching front offices and power-hungry, disgruntled athletes — are becoming more prevalent. With the end of dynasties, every league has become more balanced and competitive. Perennial losers are finding success, and teams like the Memphis Grizzlies, Golden State Warriors and Atlanta Hawks have sudden winning potential. Well, maybe not the Hawks.

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